VISITORS TO THE Philippine Pavilion in the ongoing World Expo in Zaragoza, Spain, are in for a surprise.
Instead of the trademark images of Filipino identity and culture—the arts and crafts, the tropical scenery, the exploding colors and smiling faces, the fruits and flowers and churches and jeepneys—the pavilion is attracting some 5,000-6,000 visitors a day with a fresh, unique offering: a nearly abstract, cerebral design of deep blues and watery touches celebrating the country’s “archipelagic imagination.”
The expo, with the theme “Water and Sustainable Development,” gathers over 100 participating countries, the pavilions of which generally tend to fall into two categories: paeans to the wonders of high technology or all-out altars to travel, tourism and culture.
Japan’s panoramic multimedia presentation explains how cutting-edge industrial know-how complements its traditional reverence for nature and physical harmony. Kuwait’s promise of a “4D Experience” in its cavernous space draws endless visitors who line up for a sensory movie experience detailing that desert country’s successful efforts at water desalination.
Thailand enumerates the royal programs of its revered king for rural Thais, especially in farming and fishing.
Vietnam displays Buddhist icons, artifacts and a gilded barge, while the Vatican (yes, it has its own pavilion) turns to its treasure vaults to make a point about water’s indispensable role in the sacraments. The Holy See’s spectacular contribution to the expo is El Greco’s “The Baptism of Christ,” exhibited with other priceless items from the Vatican Museum.
The Philippine pavilion “is all about our best practices as a people surrounded by water, which makes our presentation very unique,” says Tourism Secretary (and Commissioner General of the Philippine Pavilion) Joseph Durano.
The pavilion, designed by the firm of Lor Calma with independent curator Marian Roces and the graphic design group b+c, turns the volume down on full-throttle tourism and aims the spotlight, instead, on the remarkable stories of ordinary folk in different parts of the country, and their pioneering efforts at water-resource conservation and management.
“Here in the West, sustainable development is all about introducing high technology, but ours is community involvement,” explains Durano. “The pavilion is our way of celebrating our small successes and sharing them with the world.”
Durano frequently cites the example of Donsol, Sorsogon, and its successful butanding (whale shark) preservation program.
“From a simple fishing village, the people of Donsol have become tour operators catering to a worldwide tourism market, ensuring the survival of whale sharks in the area while making their lives prosperous,” he says.
Donsol is but one of 165 Filipino flagship grassroots projects cited in the pavilion’s “best practices” honor roll. There is also Bataan’s pawikan-conservation project; Southern Leyte’s protection of its coral reefs; various coastal management efforts in Negros, Palawan, Bohol, Zambales, Pangasinan and Camarines Sur; the preservation of marine sanctuaries in Surigao and the Tubbataha Reef; and even the country’s record as a stalwart provider of highly skilled personnel to the world’s shipping economy.
“What we’re showing here is how the Philippines is an archipelago both in geography and in the way we live,” says Roces, who curated and wrote the literature for the exhibit.
“Ordinary Filipinos have initiated these projects on their own, and the record of civil society for the past 30 years is about community involvement, empowerment and decentralization. So we’re evoking and celebrating that sense of diversity and initiative.”
To express the idea of the Philippines as an archipelagic waterworld of 7,100 islands in various stages of development and challenges when it comes to harnessing water resources, the pavilion has hundreds of clear spheres suspended from the ceiling, each of which contains an iconic image made of bone china to represent one of the grassroots projects being lauded.
The spheres, forming a sea of bubbles arrested in mid-air, create the feel of an underwater sanctuary, aided by dramatic midnight-blue lighting, embroidered translucent fabric that undulates all over the walls and ceiling to suggest fluidity and movement, and atmospheric music created by Jim Paredes, Grace Nono and Bob Aves, among others.
“Like the Philippine archipelago, the pavilion space [appears] to be composed of hundreds of focal points unified by water,” explains Susan del Mundo, Deputy Commissioner General of the RP Pavilion.
Five-minute documentary videos about the pioneering water projects are played in a loop on individual pods scattered around the area, while a discreet corner hosts a shop selling Philippine gift items and fabrics.
The Filipino experience is reinforced by barako and alamid coffee dispensed from a bar, as well as a 15-minute hilot massage administered to any one interested. The free massage has been a huge hit from the day the pavilion opened on June 14.
Work in progress
“It’s a work in progress,” says Durano of the pavilion, which will remain open throughout the expo’s three-month duration.
“We’re looking at injecting more items and elements that are distinctly Filipino. The most positive response we’ve received from visitors is that it offers a different perspective on the expo’s theme, aside from showing the creativity, sophistication and flexibility of Filipinos. And for that alone, I think we should win an award!” he says with a laugh.
The quip is in reference to the Philippine pavilion in the 2005 Expo in Aichi, Japan, made by the same design team, which won a Gold Prize for its imaginative use of coconut, local fabrics and other indigenous products to create a “cocoon” of health and wellness.
“Cocoon” may also well describe the Philippine pavilion in Zaragoza, with its evocation of the calming, enveloping atmosphere of the deep sea—the better to acquaint visitors with the country’s rich marine life.
“One of the richest in the world, in fact,” stresses Durano. “With this pavilion, we’re selling an experience where tourists to the Philippines can be good citizens of the planet as well.”
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